The first sound recording in human history occurred in 1877. Thomas Edison, the irascible genius who also invented the incandescent light-bulb and a host of other new technologies, recorded himself onto sheets of tinfoil. The vibrations in the air from his voice caused a diaphragm to move, activating a stylus which cut into the foil. Then the process was reversed: moving the foil under the stylus brought the diaphragm into motion, causing the air to vibrate. Sound. Thin and faint to be sure, but recognizably the sound of Edison, his words clearly audible.
What words did Edison use on this momentous occasion?
Mary had a little lamb
Her fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
That lamb was sure to go
It is a measure of the impact nursery rhymes have on us that Edison would choose one to record.These are the first songs we learn, hearing them again and again in our formative years.
Most nursery rhymes are ancient, products of centuries of oral tradition. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is younger than most, and has a known author. It was written by Sara Josepha Hale, and first published as a poem in America in 1834. It was about a real Mary who lived in Sterling, Massachusetts, who really did have a pet lamb and really did cause a fuss by taking it to school. The poem was later set to music, and with slight variations the song and the rhyme remain in the nursery canon.
How many thousands of times, I wonder, has “Mary Had a Little Lamb” been recorded since 1877?
This version is the work an unnamed and unknown group of musicians, and released on a label called Mr. Pickwick which specialised in records for children. The label shows that it was pressed in Canada, but no date is given. You would guess at the late 1960s or early 1970s.
This song will continue to be recorded, you would think, as long as humans exist and speak English, or some distant derivative of English. Perhaps even the language doesn’t matter: the song could continue even if the words cease to mean anything. Imagine a crèche on a habitable exoplanet in 2342 AD. Children, who have never seen a sheep or snow, sit in a circle and sing along to a recording … The technology used is unimaginable, and the sound quality will be a whole lot better, but the connection will remain.
- Artist: Unknown
- EP Title: Mary Had a Little Lamb
- Track: Side 1 Track 1 “Mary Had a Little Lamb”
- Format: 7” 45 rpm
- Label: Mr. Pickwick MP-13
- Manufactured in: Canada
- Year: Unknown
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